Nanosolar Reveals Solar Cell Factory Plans (Plus Photos!)

Nanosolar Cell Sorting

Thin film solar firm Nanosolar finally seems ready to be a serious company. At least that’s the impression I got during a rare factory tour of the company’s cell manufacturing plant this week (see my photos below). After over seven years of the colorful and sometimes misleading claims from the founder and former CEO Martin Rocheisen, followed by a 6-month quiet period as a new CEO and management took over the firm, Nanosolar is cautiously revealing some of its actual production capacity, expansion plans and first customers.

“The first cell factory line is close to (annual) 50 MW, but there are some bottlenecks in it still, so it’s a bit under that,” explained Brian Stone, VP of Sales and Marketing for Nanosolar, to me as we walked around the cell factory in San Jose, Calif. The answer seemed like the beacon of restraint compared to some of the blog posts and interviews with Rocheisen, who once openly bashed competitors like Solyndra, announced that Nanosolar had started producing thin film panels in 2007, and had reached “high volume production” in September 2009.

Nanosolar is planning to expand its close to 50 MW annual capacity at the cell plant to 115 MW by the Fall of 2011, says Stone, who added in 4 to 5 years the company would likely have 1 GW capacity in total across various factories. For comparison’s sake, startup competitor MiaSole expects to ship 20-30 MW of solar panels by the end of 2010 and says it will likely ship hundreds of MW of panels by the end of 2011. Thin film leader First Solar has an annual capacity of around 1 GW.

In the big pond of mass production Nanosolar is still a small fish, despite eight years of development and several hundred million in funding. But Nanosolar does have small deployments with some European utility customers, and at a solar convention this week is announcing that Beck Energy  connected the first Nanosolar utility solar plant, which is 1.1 MW, to the grid in June.

Nanosolar’s next project is a 3 MW free field installation with EDF Energies Nouvelles at their Gabardan, France solar field, Stone tells me. The utility plant is planned to be installed  and interconnected by Spring 2011.

Despite Rocheisen’s claims last year of high volume production, Nanosolar is still in the process of moving from a phase of a partially automated cell factory to one that will eventually be full mass-scale, commercial factory, with minimal human interactions. Nanosolar’s current cell factory needs workers to move the cells from process to process. Stone noted to me that the company’s panel factory in Germany is much more automated (Nanosolar makes the cells in San Jose and send them to Germany to be put into panels). During my tour of MiaSole’s plant, Miasole CEO Joseph Laia also emphasized a process of moving to a much more automated — read efficient — production.

Nanosolar is also still working on tweaks in its manufacturing process. Nanosolar’s real innovation is that it prints solar cells with ink, and is looking to add in more places where it can use this coating process throughout the manufacturing line. Stone tells me that coating process is 4 to 5 times less expensive than sputtering, which is a process similar to when chip bags are sprayed with that shiny internal layer. While Nanosolar uses sputtering for its bottom electrode, it uses coating for the CIGS solar material. However, MiaSole’s Laia emphasized to me in an interview earlier this year that sputtering was by far and away the cheapest method of CIGS thin film solar production.

Nanosolar is also looking to keep production costs cheap by using as little vacuum tools as possible. Compared to MiaSole’s factory, which sputters the materials onto the cells through a series of vacuum machines, Nanosolar’s ink coating machines are open to the air, and are currently painted and cleaned by technicians. The proprietary ink that they use smells pretty much like school room pen ink, and it wafts around the factory floor around the coating machines.

Has Nanosolar made wild claims over its 8 years? Yep. But I hope it some day hits the one claim that is really important: to enable solar to reach grid parity. Check out my photos of the factory tour:

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